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Health, psychology & science stories


The psychology of revenge

2 April 2003

Published in The Age

One wonders if the White House’s Bibles aren’t getting dog-eared around Jeremiah 46:10 at the moment: “For this is...a day of vengeance...for the Lord hath a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.”

Of course it’s not just the American government which is transforming the time-honoured tradition of revenge into a modern artform. For those of us without the Pentagon’s $US399 billion budget, revenge websites and self-help books are proliferating like Bibles in the West Wing.

While revengeunlimited.com draws the line at pranks - providing an online store to arm you for them - thepayback.com ratchets the action up to dead fish and fake parking tickets. Unfortunately their catalogue seldom transcends the childish.

The Avenger’s Front Page is more serious. It attempts to document the cream of the “revenge schemes, tactics, ideas, tips and guidance” which have been posted on the alt.revenge bulletin board since 1993. Spend enough time in this site, and you’ll receive “complete instructions on how to turn the work-life of a local 7-eleven employee into a living nightmare”. You may also learn the Eleven Commandments of Revenge, and to master “discreet data research”. (Know thine enemy.) You might even want to throw caution to the wind and purchase the full Revenge Pack. After all, writes webmaster Pal Ekran from Norway - with impressive Scandinavian sincerity - “if you want to ruin someone's life, you’ll have to put all your heart and a lot of time into it”.

Happily, the section Ruining Someone’s Life provides full instructions. Publishing most of these would probably result in a home-grown Patriot Act, so I’ll confine myself to a couple of the more innocuous. Ekran advises donning the identity of one’s enemy (a favourite ploy for avengers), and thereafter adding his name to innumerable junk mailing lists; and phoning Christian fundamentalist hotlines, and requesting personal visits from counsellors.

Somewhat less peurile are the websites established by jilted women - who also tend to have more inventive strategies.

“Revenge is healthy,” writes Christine Gallagher, the Californian founder of RevengeLady.com, and author of The Woman’s Book of Revenge. “Don't listen to those mealymouths who tell you otherwise. You're teaching people to behave better. At the same time you're getting icky poisonous feelings out of your system once and for all. What could be healthier?”

One woman on Gallagher’s site released 1,000 crickets into her ex’s house. Gallagher’s own favourite revenge story, she told The Age, “was sent in by a woman who had noticed her boyfriend had suddenly become very fond of walking the dog. She followed him to the park, only to find him sniffing around a female dog owner. She got hold of a hormone used in mating dogs and sprayed it on his trouser legs. Next time he went to the park, he was the belle of the ball!”

How did Gallagher get into the revenge business?

“I wrote The Woman's Book of Revenge as a lark, and it evolved from there. However I did once exact revenge on a bad boyfriend and so I understood how satisfying it could feel. He two-timed me, taking a woman to Italy while telling me he was visiting a dying friend in Switzerland. I put a marble inside the well of his car door - it drove him nutty. We still laugh about it when I ask him over for lunch with my husband and kids.”

“Revenge is excellent self-therapy,” she writes on the website. “It’s far cheaper than a therapist, and much healthier than pigging out on a box of doughnuts.“

Whilst we timid Westerners need websites and self-help books to galvanise us, for the fiercely tribal Pukhtun in Pakistan, revenge is an obligation, not an option. And like all good avengers, the Pukhtun follow the Sicilian credo that it is a dish best served cold.

“A Pukhtun man of honour must take revenge for an insult or slight,” Charles Lindholm, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, told The Age. “Or else risk being ever more insulted and slighted. This is characteristic of Middle Eastern tribal cultures in general, as well as similar lineage-oriented societies worldwide.”

Evolutionary psychologists proffer the same rationale for the institution of revenge: deterrence. Still, in the modern West revenge tends to be acted out with a maximum of dissimulation. No civilised person - from a practitioner of office politics to the leader of the free world - wants to be labelled “vengeful”. We pull strings quietly, cover our nefarious motivations with noble ones (like “justice”) and, where needed, provide Fate with all the backdoor assistance she might require.

William Maurer, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, illustrates the point in light of the Iraq war. “The Bush administration has repeatedly emphasised that the war is not about payback or revenge, but ‘liberating’ the Iraqi people and protecting the world from weapons of mass destruction,” Maurer says. “But, at the same time, one of the pieces of evidence that Saddam is ‘evil’ , to use Bush’s term, is, ‘He tried to kill my dad.’”

So where is this dysfunctional cycle taking us?

Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi - who heads the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Memphis, Tennessee - believes that most of the violence in today’s world is revenge-inspired: “One way or the other it is based on revenge and a desire to teach the other a lesson he or she will never forget,” he says. “Revenge is part of what Gandhi called ‘the culture of violence’ that we have built around us. The culture of violence requires that we dominate each other through fear. That mind-set goes on forever.”

Like his grandfather, Arun Gandhi believes that revenge is extremely dangerous geopolitically, because it perpetuates conflicts rather than resolving them. Revenge, he says, comes from anger. “And anger, my grandfather Mahatma Gandhi said, is like electricity. Powerful and useful if used intelligently, but just as deadly and destructive if abused. We have to learn how to use this emotion intelligently.”

There’s not much sign of that on the Internet. Or in the White House.

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